I complain a lot. About anything, everything. It didn’t occur to me until my husband’s cousin came in for a family simcha and I listened to myself with the higher level of self-consciousness that comes with being around someone you don’t see all that much.
Listen to yourself! I thought. It sounds like you don’t even enjoy parenting at all! All you’re doing is complaining!
I consider myself a happy person, but I cannot deny that it is more likely that a kvetch will come out of my mouth than a word of gratitude. There’s something that’s considered more “real” about complaining. The people who are always happy, who never have a kvetch, they are somehow not to be trusted, they are being fake.
Of course life has its ups and downs, its amazing moments and its crushing ones. No life is all good or all bad. Somehow I veered into focusing on the bad (really, only the less good. Nothing in my life is objectively bad, and if we’re going to get all gam zu l’tovah here, nothing is bad at all).
Of course, this focusing on the badness bled over into my religiosity. I’ve been frum long enough for that initial spark of inspiration to fade. My rose-colored glasses have been removed, and partially stomped on. I’ve heard the pain and complaints of my co-religionists, read the angst-filled comments on Facebook about sheitels and education and conformity and racism.
The posts I write that are about hard topics are the more popular ones. We like to revel in it, somehow. Get into the kishkes of the problems. That can be a very good thing, a cathartic thing, but it’s not all I want to focus on.
I was asked to speak at a local school about why I, you know, changed my entire life over and adhere to these mitzvos that, inarguably, make my life more complicated.
“Why would you ever choose to do that?” I’ve had people ask me, people who are born into it and can’t fathom a life any other way, but can’t fathom why someone would do this to themselves.
Well, let me tell you about why I did it, and why I would do it again.
1. I’m Not a Jerk All The Time Anymore
When I learned about the laws of Lashon Hara and the whole Giving the Benefit of the Doubt thing, and other bein adam l’chavero mitzvos, I thought they were pretty amazing. But when I learned about middos, and mussar and the self-improvement stuff within Judaism, my mind was blown. Blown.
I had been really into astrology pre-Judaism. Not the horoscope in the newspaper kind, but getting a whole chart done and knowing my moon sign (cancer) and rising sign (gemini), and all that other stuff. I was into it because I didn’t understand myself and I wanted to, and this seemed like it would help.
It hadn’t occurred to me that getting to know myself wasn’t the final step, but the first step. And that after I started to identify my strengths and weaknesses, I could make myself better. Nicer. More considerate. More patient.
Judaism has all these tools to help me transcend my personal limitations. I still have plenty of failings, which I exercise regularly, but I know I’m working on it, and I’ve seen the progress. And that is miraculous.
2. Strangers Do Really Nice Things
Once, before I converted, I went to New York with a local (midwestern) Rav for some conference. He had a family wedding in Brooklyn to go to and invited me to come along. I didn’t have anything appropriately fancy to wear, so he swung by a sister-in-law’s simcha gemach so I could pick out an outfit. I went to this wedding in a navy blue with rhinestones suit and danced all night. It was epic.
Another time, I had to travel out-of-state for a funeral and needed a place to stay for Shabbos. A friend contacted her sister-in-law, who contacted her mother-in-law, who lived in that state, and not only did she host me for Shabbos, but she tried to set me up with a shidduch while I was there. So was so friendly that I kept in touch and sent her pictures of my family after I got married and started having children.
There’s this sense of instant connection with other Jews, a sense of communal responsibility to take care of each other, even if we’ve never met. I have been the recipient of countless kindnesses, and I have totally hosted people in my home that I do not know, and have made meals for families moving into town. It’s not because I’m so holy or something, but rather because this is how I was taught to be, because my role models and mentors modeled for me the importance of these communal mitzvos.
And because I think it’s really cool to be part of this giant family, where strangers aren’t really strangers.
3. I Am Never Bored
When I first started learning about Judaism, and realized I was just looking at the tip of the iceberg, I said to myself, “well, you’ll certainly never be bored.” And I was thrilled. I love the idea that even if I learn every day, I will still not cover all there is to learn about this religion.
I love learning about things, all kinds of things. This means I often get distracted from learning Torah because I’m listening to a Freakonomics podcast instead of a shiur. But when I do listen to a shiur, I get this feeling of rejuvenation, like I’ve just plugged myself back into the outlet after running on low power for a while.
4. Family Life
I had a neighbor, a lovely woman who wasn’t Jewish, tell me that she was jealous of how my community supported the idea of motherhood. She did not feel as supported in her life, and she saw how respected being a mother was in my circles. I had taken it completely for granted.
When my five-year-old sings Hodu L’Hashem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo for a school graduation, when my children belt out Acheinu and Hashem Melech and Yesh Tikvah, I melt. The other day, my oldest son was singing Shalom Aleichem interspersed with whispers of “watergun watergun water gun” as he shot his water gun on our back porch. It’s just completely part of them, these songs, these words. When they’re just being kids, with their nearly intolerable boyish fascination with guns, they include words of kedushah in with it.
My kids are still young, and I know that things will invariably get more complicated and they will not continue to be this sheltered as they grow, but I’m glad that in these formative years, these are the songs that are shaping their childhood, the words that are filling their heads. Holy words, words that are connected to a mesorah that goes back, so far back.
5. Tools to Deal
So as we all probably know, sometime things in life go much less nicely than we would like. Sometimes we are sorely, sorely disappointed, and aggravated, and in pain. Sometimes we can only sink in the corner and cry and wonder how on earth we are going to get through the day.
Becoming religious doesn’t mean that all of a sudden my life is going to be problem-free. Oh no. But it does give me access to incomparable tools to deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. The mitzvos like not hating people, not bearing a grudge, those are hard, man, hard. But they help. They really do. And the encouragement to have a Rav, a mentor, a support system to help make it through difficult times, that is invaluable.
Not that I always remember to use these tools, mind you. I’ll get so stressed out about this or that problem, and I’ll forget that I’m part of this religion that gives phenomenal advice. I’ll spend months or years or whatever nursing a grudge, and venting beyond the point of productivity, and not trying to cut anyone else any slack. And I’ll be miserable. And then I’ll go to a class or read a book that contains the exactly right advice for my problem and I remember. I remember that I should try to be religious sometimes when I’m not coping.
~ ~ ~
There is really so much more, so much that I didn’t even touch on. But it’s late, and I am playing piano for a kindergarten siddur play in the morning, where beautiful little children are receiving their first siddur. They are singing songs and wearing crowns for this event, and have been practicing for weeks. I will probably cry as I’m playing, because it’s beautiful, and holy, and I am so grateful that this is my life.